Freedom vs. Firewalls: The Senate can help fend off authoritarian censorship

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

FROM TWITTERERS in Tehran to bloggers in Burma, citizens living under authoritarian regimes depend upon free access to the Internet for information, coordination and the ability to make themselves heard. That's why oppressive governments devote so much effort to online censorship: They, too, recognize the power of information to promote freedom. But some independent groups are pushing back against their control.

The indelible images and powerful stories that have emerged from Iran in recent weeks have been made possible by the efforts of a few volunteer experts running a makeshift system of patchwork servers. The Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a small, non-governmental organization, provides access to almost 1 million users daily and, according to recent statistics, to more than 90 percent of anti-censorship traffic from China and Iran. Its software allows users to evade online censors by connecting to a remote server that switches IP addresses nearly once a second to avoid being traced. But increased demand for the Internet amid recent turmoil has been overloading the consortium's servers just when access is most needed. For the peaceful online revolution to continue, congressional support is necessary.

Before the Senate Appropriations Committee is a bill that could provide access to 100 million distinct users every day. Dedicating $50 million in the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill to Internet freedom could allow millions who live in autocratic societies access to the Internet. Internet freedom has long been a stated congressional priority -- the 2008 appropriations bill included a commitment to provide "anti-censorship tools and services for the advancement of information freedom in closed societies." Now is the time for Congress to put its money behind its words.

For every dollar the United States spends to guarantee access, oppressive regimes must spend thousands to put up walls and barriers. Once enough there are enough holes in a firewall, it crumbles. The technology for this exists. What is needed is more capacity.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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